Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chokher Bali – A Grain Of Sand

Title:- Chokher Bali – A Grain Of Sand
Genre:- Fiction

Subgenre:- Novel

Author:- Rabindranath Tagore

Translator:- Sreejata Guha

Publisher:- Penguin Books

ISBN Number:- 0-14-303035-3

Price:- Rs. 250


The Blurb

Chokher Bali: A Grain Of Sand is Nobel Prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore’s classic exposition of an extramarital affair that takes place within the confines of a joint family.

It is the story of the rich, flamboyant Mahendra and his simple, demure, beautiful w
ife Asha – a young couple who are befriended by the pragmatic Behari. Their cosy domestic scenario undergoes great upheaval with the introduction of the vivacious Binodini, a young, attractive widow who comes to live with them. Asha and Binodini become bosom pals. Binodini is initially drawn to Behari but then begins to respond to the advances of Mahendra, who has become obsessively attracted to her. After several twists and turns, Binodini elopes with Mahendra, leaving the entire family in turmoil.

On the one hand,
Chokher Bali: A Grain Of Sand is a sensational account of two illicit relationships: Mahendra’s infatuation with Binodini which blkinds him to everything else, and Binodini’s secret passion for Behari of which she is never able to speak of. On the other hand, it is a complex tapestry woven by the emotional interplay between five finely etched characters: the impulsive Mahendra, his adoring mother Rajlakshmi, the frail and sensitive Asha, the strong, silent Behari, and the self-willed and irresistibly attractive Binodini.

A compelling portrayal of the complexity of relationships and of human character, this landmark novel is just as powerful and thought-provoking today as it was a hundred years ago, when it was written.


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Published in 1903, Chokher Bali is claimed by many to be the first modern novel written in India. And its publication seems to be as coincidental as that of Gitanjali, the book of poems which won for India her first Nobel and for Tagore, international acclaim. Shrisha Chandra had restarted the magazine Bangadarshan and Tagore’s name had been added to the list of contributors. The latter took it upon himself to write a serialized novel for the magazine, his efforts resulting in the genesis of his first novel Chokher Bali. In the view of these circumstances, it is understandable why Tagore’s novel bears a strong resemblance in its subject to Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Bishbriksha (The Poison Tree), the serialized novel which had earlier appeared in Bangadarshan and which was published in 1873. And indeed Tagore does make explicit references to Bishbriksha in Chokher Bali.

Chokher Bali is Binodini’s novel. Binodini – a young, beautiful and charming widow and the grain of sand in Asha’s eye. The novel revolves around Binodini, capturing her in all her avatars – as a hapless widow, as a gamine, as a seductress, and as a repentant woman. Tagore lends expression to her longings and fancies in immense detail, so much so that at some points the narrative becomes a tacit debate on love, longing, morality and relationships. And in doing so, he manages to make you fall in love with her.

Chokher Bali represents the literary equivalent of the place of miniature art in painting and illustration. The story by its plot itself is nothing to rave about – it might be better suited for scurrilous paperbacks that line the shelves of dusty bookshops and railway bookstalls. However Tagore manages to weave a beautiful variegated fabric out of threads of very few colours. His narrative retains a tension which does not lose you till the very end, due credit for which must go to the translator for understanding the ethos of such a simple and splendid novel.

One observes the conspicuous absence of judgement on the part of the author, which makes the turn of events and the whims and decisions of the characters as natural as the fluttering of leaves on a sweltering summer noon or the flow of a gushing river. The complexity of the narrative rests on the emotional turmoil suffusing it and not on the turns and twists of the plot (though there are many of those too). Also Chokher Bali is suffused with a spiritual aura which Tagore connoisseurs have learnt to recognize as the hallmark of Tagore’s writings.

Tagore’s novel is as simple and as complicated as only a true exposition of love can be. Go, rediscover love.

2 comments:

Church Lady said...

My jaw literally dropped when you said that this was written in 1903.

What a lovely review. I want to read a book like this. I am interested in learning more about Indian culture. There are things I don't like about it (the caste system) and things I adore about it (the familial relationships).

The only book I've ever read about India is "A Fine Balance." Awesome read. Dark and sad, but very, very good.

Thanks for sharing your insights!!

Abhinav said...

Gosh!!! A Fine Balance by Mistry I've just started reading. It's lovely. Thanks for the praise.